Using faith to find meaning in the Oklahoma tornado

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

On May 20, the country watched with amazement and horror as a colossal F-5 tornado ripped through the neighborhoods of Moore, Okla. In the days that followed, compelling stories of human compassion and kindness emerged from the rubble, many of them containing threads of faith.
An elderly woman found her beloved schnauzer dog while being interviewed, and said God answered her prayers.
A Muslim group was one of the first to arrive on the scene with food, toiletries and other necessities.
A mother who narrowly survived with her young son revealed she is an atheist when an interviewer asked if she thanked the Lord.
In any case, victims and thinkers alike ventured to reconcile such destruction with their faith, and answer the question of what it all means.
Whole world in his hands?
The Rev. Jeffrey Sloan, a Free Will Baptist minister and resident of Moore since 2007, lost every possession he owned in the tornado. Having seen his share of catastrophe in relief trips to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Sloan was still amazed at the devastation.
“I saw things I couldn’t believe,” he said. “Boats were wrapped around trees. The debris in our yard came from a town an hour and a half away.”
In the face of a disaster, some thank God for sparing them. Some say tragedy is God’s wrathful judgment, while some claim there is no meaning behind it at all.
But aerial views of Moore in the days following the tornado show flattened neighborhoods only a street over from houses that seem completely untouched. Victims tell of fortuitous circumstances, chance events that led them to safety at the last second.
In Sloan’s case, the damage sparked an electrical fire that engulfed his family’s home. From the rubble, the only objects he could recover were the topper from his wedding cake, and three small figurines – each purchased at the birth of his three children.
The randomness makes it difficult not to ascribe some will to a tornado, some mind that chooses what will perish and what will survive. As his creation, how could the planet, the environment, not be an extension of God?
“Romans chapter eight says all creation is waiting for the day when it will be redeemed,” Sloan said. “In Genesis, it was not only mankind that fell, but the earth itself did as well. Sometimes these things just happen, and it’s hard because they are so random.”
Tornado Theology
Sloan said in the wake of the damage people can feel anger and frustration at God. If they feel they lead a righteous life, they may feel betrayed.
The Rev. Chris McAlilly, of Brewer United Methodist Church in Shannon, said the idea of God blessing the faithful and cursing the wicked dates back to the Middle Ages. However, when a devastating earthquake struck the staunchly Catholic city of Lisbon on a Christian holiday in the 1700s, the concept fell under scrutiny.
“Enlightenment philosophers used the earthquake to counter the belief that God is responsible in every single instance,” McAlilly said. “It’s the idea of a God who is engaged versus one who is distant. If you don’t attribute negative things to God, how can you attribute good things to him?”
The Rev. Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo, faced such questions when serving a church in Bay St. Louis when Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“We always think this world should be just, not random, arbitrary or cruel,” he said.
Brooks said it seemed God is either all powerful and not completely loving, or completely loving and not all powerful.
“The truth is there is just no satisfying answer right now,” he said. “But there are amazing gifts that come out of these situations. God is present in the communal grief and communal effort, in people who run toward the suffering, who have the resilience to take it on the chin and move on.”
A peace
For residents of Northeast Mississippi, scenes of Moore were eerily reminiscent of Smithville after the town was hit by a tornado of the same force in 2011.
The Rev. Wes White, pastor of Smithville Baptist Church, hid in the lowest level of the church as the twister passed directly over him.
“Mankind often likes things to fit in nice little boxes,” he said. “We want to know why it was Smithville, and not, say, Fulton. But my comfort came not in understanding why, but from knowing I had God to call out to.”
White recalled the book of Job, when “a mighty wind” collapses the righteous Job’s house, killing his family. Job tore off his robe, shaved his head, and fell to the ground in worship, but by the end of his book, when God has not answered him, Job is at his wits end.
“God told Job basically these things were not for him to know,” White said. “Personally, I don’t want to serve a God so small I can understand him completely. Inevitably, we all have moments in our lives that surpass our abilities to understand, and we need to trust in him. But it’s important for us to think. I believe God wants us to think through the process and ask hard questions.”
Sloan agreed, and said the instinct to find meaning is evident of something inside every heart that longs for God.
“There are Christians in parts of this world who live every day with nothing. In Ecclesiastes, the Bible says it is better to dwell in a house of mourning than one full of folly. Those mourning understand the value of life, the importance of the simplest things,” he said. “God’s gifts are not always monetary. Sometimes his gift is his presence in the midst of loss. That may be the test of Western Christianity. When you don’t have anything left, is God still as real as when you had everything you thought you needed?”
riley.manning@journalinc.com